Is This the Best Response to China’s Cyber-Attacks?

May 20, 2014

I assume China is guilty as charged—that the five accused PLA officers or others in their demographic committed cyber espionage against American firms to steal technology and gain other competitive advantages. I assume there were more than five people involved.

It’s a serious problem and China denies its existence. This makes bilateral discussion of the matter a bit one-sided. When China refuses to engage seriously on an issue, either through denial in the face of strong evidence or unevidenced assertion of its own positions, the United States increasingly resorts to name-and-shame tactics. In the South China Sea, China’s “I Am That I Am” defense of its territorial claims is pushing the U.S. toward ever bolder rejection of the nine-dash line: You am not either.

Against this background, and under American law, the Department of Justice’s indictments are justified. But they won’t be effective and they may prove counter-productive.

No one expects China’s leaders to extradite the officers or to confess that they were following orders from the party they serve. What we should expect—and what we got from China right after Attorney General Holder’s announcement—is stronger denials, tit-for-tat accusations, and suspension of the Sino-U.S. Cyber Working Group’s interactions. This response surely figured into USG calculations. We went ahead with the indictments, probably in order to demonstrate our commitment to protecting American businesses and for lack of a better idea.

Name-and-shame is, after all, a tactic of last resort—a throwing up of hands. It’s an understandable reaction but it doesn’t work with China, at least in the short or medium terms.

Not only will the indictments not solve the cyber espionage problem, naming Chinese officers as international criminals may harm the military-to-military relationship, which has improved lately. China’s top general was in Washington last week at the invitation of the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and China will, for the first time, participate in the Rim of the Pacific military exercises hosted by the United States this summer. Exchanges such as these can decrease the likelihood of accidental conflict and improve joint crisis management. It would be a blow to the relationship if China cancelled military exchanges in response to the indictments.

The American case against China would be stronger if other offended nations stood beside us. The NSA’s hacking programs make that unlikely, of course. They also make American moralizing on distinctions between espionage for security’s sake and espionage for economic advantage unconvincing to many Chinese. In China’s political and popular narrative, the humiliations China suffered at foreign hands beginning in the mid-19th Century mean that the moral balance will be tilted in China’s favor for some time between the foreseeable future and forever. China is always the injured party; that is as central to China’s virtue narrative as Holder’s statement that “The success of American companies since our nation’s founding has been a result of hard work and fair play by our citizens” is to that of the United States. China’s State-Owned Enterprises, furthermore, play a role in China’s national security as profit centers, bearers of prestige, and as channels for the introduction of technology. Their prosperity is essential to state security from the Chinese Communist Party’s point of view.

I don’t mean to imply that America is wrong about the facts in this case. I do wonder if our policy is wrong-headed. If our goal is to alleviate the problem, making China lose face (I know, I know—they did it to themselves) is not the way to go. China cares more about face than we do and will fight harder to save it. Bilateral and multilateral consultation will yield better results over an arduous, imperfect long run. The best we’ve got is unsatisfactory, but it’s still the best we’ve got.

This was originally posted on China File. Read other responses on the China File website here.

Experts & Staff